I was originally heading to the office today but a ice storm derailed that plan last night, which is fine with me because now I get to listen to some more heady vinyl while I work through my coaches this morning in my basement office. This morning’s listen is another awesome album put out on the local San Antonio Numero label, ‘English Oldies‘ by the Royal Jesters.
This was the second Texas-inspired album I grabbed on my last trip to San Antonio while shopping at the wicked awesome Hogwild Records. When I found this album in the “Texas” section, I at first hemmed and ha-ed over it since I had no familiarity with either the group or label at all. I was foremost looking for something by the more immediately recognizable Texas troubadours like, say, Guy Clark or Willie Nelson which, of course they also had in spades. But this album just looked so interesting…not to mention beautiful.
Serious, just look at this:
It’s like you’ve been instantly transported back to the 1960’s.
I finally gave in and tentatively approached the counter where the young clerk (the store owner?) immediately put my mind at ease telling me how amazing an album it really was and what a cool label Numero was (he really made me feel excited about my choice), founded in 2003 by Tom Lunt, Rob Sevier, and Ken Shipley (a former A&R manager for the equally eclectic Rykodisc label). The label’s focus since its 2003 founding has been to research and preserve obscure recorded material and ephemera by artists and entrepreneurs who found little commercial success upon their material’s initial release. He even then turned me onto the previous album I posted yesterday (click HERE) which, of course, I also snatched up.
I’m glad I did.
One of the San Antonio groups not featured on the Numero label’s ‘Eccentric Soul: The Dynamic Label‘ was these Royal Jesters – Alamo City’s scrappiest souleros. That’s because they recorded for two of Abe Epstein’s other labels, Cobra and Jox, and they eventually set up labels of their own and briefly mingled with larger labels Bell and Bang. The Royal Jesters were the kings of San Antonio’s cross-cultural teen scene in the 1960s, soundtracking lovelorn slow dances with their heart-sick harmonies. Although they had little national success, the Royal Jesters is the group probably most loved by San Antonians at the time.
Oscar Lawson and Henry Hernández started the group in high school because they where inspired by the vocal harmonies of trios and loved to sing the harmonies. Like many teens, they were also drawn to rhythm and blues and the doo-wop groups that were popular on the radio. After having some local hits like ‘My Angel of Love‘, they started their own labels, Jester and Clown Records, to record their own music. Even more adventurous, they rented a hall called El Patio Andaluz, which was a two-story venue that had an outside patio. El Patio became a center where they organized dances, rehearsals, recordings and rented it out for parties. Many great singers passed through this group including Mike Pedraza, Louie Escalante, Joe Jama and Henry Martínez from The Commands. The talented singer and songwriter Dimas Garza joined them in 1962 and wrote many of their hits, including ‘Love Me‘ and ‘You’ve Succeeded‘.
With ‘English Oldies‘, Numero rounds up over two-dozen cuts from the locally beloved Chicano group, including solo material from members Dimas III and Joe Jama. This emphasizes the group’s pre-Tejano years, with 1962’s ‘I Never Will Forget‘ presumably the earliest selection and 1972‘s ‘Back to You’/’Theme for a Lonely Girl‘ possibly the latest. Going by those inclusions and the group’s other output during that decade, it’s evident how smoothly the Royal Jesters evolved from the emulation of doo wop and early Motown to a harmonically rich cross-genre act that would not have been out of place on a nationwide tour with Malo or the Doobie Brothers, had they ever ventured outside the Lone Star State.
The heart of the anthology is the Royal Jesters’ earlier work, mostly aching ballads ideal for teen dances that gracefully float and gently bounce. ‘I Won’t Love You Again‘ and their cover of ‘Take Me for a Little While‘, at minimum, deserved to spread far outside San Antonio. The Impressions-like ‘I’ve Got Soul‘ (a personal pride anthem) and a steaming version of Willie Bobo’s ‘Spanish Grease‘ (the set’s hottest dance inclusion) are fine, too. Personally, I really dug the Dimas track ‘I’ll So Funny‘, ‘Lonely Guy‘ and the punchy instrumental ‘Afro-Lypso‘ which could easily be part of the next Tarantino film soundtrack.
The booklet, complete with amazing glossy photos from that period, contains an in-depth essay that is typical of Numero’s high standards, but there is no track information beyond songwriting credits. Only a few release dates can be identified by scouring the text. That’s okay, though, it more than makes up for it with those great photos.
So, what’s my lesson here: when the dude behind the counter at Hogwild Records tells you something is good, he’s just not trying to sell you something. Take note. Buddy knos what he’s talking about.
I’ll be playing this one over an over for a while.